Wednesday, December 21, 2005

WHO Handbook for Journalists online

WHO has just published a bird flu Handbook for Journalists. It is available as a .pdf online. I just read it.

What to say? The information is basic and none of it news to a regular reader of this site or other sites that discuss bird flu. It provides a naive journalist the absolute minimum of information. It can be read in less than an hour, probably in 45 minutes. It has links for WHO resources, but no others. It appears accurate, with two exceptions.

The first is relatively minor. The sources of genetic variation are mentioned, but poorly explained. Moreoever, genetic drift is termed "adaptive mutation":
A pandemic virus can emerge via another mechanism, known as "adaptive mutation," in which the viruses gradually adapt, during human infections, into a form progressively easier to spread among humans. (p. 2)
This may have seemed like a more descriptive term than genetic drift to the writer, but unfortunately "adaptive mutation" in genetics refers to the dependence of mutation frequency on environmental conditions, for example, environmental stress inducing E. coli to mutate more frequently (in a much studied model). This has a Lamarckian flavor and has been highly controversial in microbiology. In any event, the random process intended, whereby mutation is independent of its consequences and the environment, is not "adaptive mutation" and journalists shouldn't use that term.

The second, more important, concern is in the description of the experimental H5N1 vaccine (p. 8):
Several companies have begun work on a potential pandemic vaccine, using the WHO "seed" stock, that is based on the H5N1 strain circulating in Viet Nam. In August 2005, US researchers announced preliminary results from an experimental pandemic influenza vaccine, that provoked a strong immune response in humans in a clinical trial. This development should cut the lead-time needed to produce a vaccine from four to six months to two to three months.
To say the experimental vaccine provoked "a strong immune response" is misleading. Indeed, as we have noted here, the amount of antigen needed to achieve adequate response is twelve times what is needed for ordinary seasonal vaccine. The recent attempt to strengthen this weak response by using an alum adjuvant was disappointing. The Handbook gives the impression we are well on the way to an effective H5N1 vaccine, but there are many obstacles yet to overcome and we don't know how long it will take to overcome them. In my view this is a serious bit of misinformation for science journalists.

The Handbook is a reasonable effort to educate a reporter who knows almost nothing about bird flu. After reading it, a reporter will know the minimum but not much more. That's better than nothing. But not by a lot. The information is available in many newspapers. WHO could have aimed higher.